Craft keg beer – what’s that all about?

by Steve Renshaw

Earlier this year, we were in Norwich for CAMRA’s national annual general meeting. What a lovely city and so many great pubs!

In a newish-looking place called the Norwich Tap House, there were no pumps on the bar. Instead, there was a row of twenty taps protruding from the wall. On a blackboard to the side was a list of the beers.

I recognised some brewery names but, being a Yorkshireman, the main thing that struck me was the price. The cheapest pint was £3.70 and Thornbridge Jaipur was £4.90. I ordered a half at the lower end of the price range.

When I studied the beer list in more depth I noticed, towards the bottom, Guinness and Becks. It was only then that it struck me. This was all keg beer. Horror of horrors!

CAMRA was formed in 1971 by four journalists who were disillusioned by the domination of the UK beer market by a handful of companies producing bland keg beers. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the big brewers had moved away from producing traditional, flavoursome beers which continued to ferment in the cask from which they were served.

Instead, they were pushing beers that were chilled and filtered to remove all the yeast, pasteurised to make them sterile and then put in a sealed keg. The problem is that this removes a great deal of the taste and aroma. And, because there is no secondary fermentation occurring in a keg, there is no natural carbonation of the beer. So carbon dioxide has to be added to make the beer fizzy.

CAMRA has been so successful that the term “real ale” it coined forty years ago is now in the Oxford English Dictionary, and there are over 1,000 breweries producing cask-conditioned beer.

Until fairly recently, keg beer was the province of the global mega-brewers. However, there are now some small brewers producing “craft keg” beers. Some, like Brew Dog and Meantime, only produce keg and bottled/canned versions of their beers. Others, such as Thornbridge and Blue Monkey, have cask and keg versions of the same beers.

The new-style keg beers are fermented under pressure so the carbon dioxide occurs naturally from the initial fermentation. The beer is then filtered lightly, without any pasteurisation, before shipping. However, gas is still required to get the beer into the glass, unless you go for a bottled version.

Craft keg brewers claim that their beers need to be served cold. Certainly, many young people like drinking cold, fizzy beer, and craft keg has become trendy, particularly in London. That probably explains why they are charging so much for it.

There was lots of discussion about craft keg beer at our AGM. Many members see it as the beginning of the (next) end for real ale, while others feel that CAMRA should embrace it.

In the end, it was decided that we would continue as the Campaign FOR Real Ale, and not a campaign against any other type of beer. We’re in favour of choice and, if craft keg brings more drinkers into pubs, then that’s fine. And if it’s a good, real ale pub, we hope they’ll learn to appreciate the subtleties of flavour that you can only get from traditional, cask-conditioned beers.

And what about the beer? I chose London Fields Black Path Porter (4.2% ABV). Porter is a traditional, dark brew that often has hints of coffee or chocolate. The low temperature of my expensive half didn’t allow the flavours of the beer to come through. It seemed quite watery and I didn’t like the unnatural carbonation.

We hope you enjoyed the traditional real ales at the Lincoln Beer Festival.